I'm not alone in my love for a bit of melted cheese - fondue, cheese on toast, Welsh rarebit, slices of squeaky grilled halloumi... We can't get enough of these classic dishes.
Fondue recipes are generally written up to feed at least two people, although a fondue for one, of sorts, can be knocked up easily enough, as my experimenting proved.
But the ultimate indulgence in hot dairy products is surely a baked Vacherin. It's basically a whole soft cheese in a box cooked at a highish temperature. But this prosaic description does a disservice to the sheer unctuousness of this seasonal delight. A bigger cheese is definitely plenty for two, but the smallest size is still substantial and perfect for a greedy foodie up for a luxury carb fest in front of the TV on a cold winter's night.
What you need:
1 Vacherin Mont D'or, in its box
A little white wine
A small clove of garlic
A tiny sprig or two of fresh thyme, oregano or rosemary (optional)
A portion of small new or salad potatoes, skins on
A handful of sweet-sour cornichons or gherkins
What to do:
Heat the oven to 180C. Scrub the potatoes if necessary and put on to boil. Remove any plastic wrapping from the Vacherin. Make a few slits in the top of the rind and push in a few thin slivers of garlic. Tuck the herbs into the slits if you're using them. Sprinkle a generous tablespoonful of white wine over the top of the cheese, replace the lid of the box and bake for 20-25 minutes. The potatoes should be ready at the same time.
Serve up with the potatoes or crusty bread, torn into chunks fondue-style, and a side order of gherkins. Using a sharp knife cut carefully around the top rind of the cheese and remove this lid then scoop up the molten innards with the potatoes or bread.
Vacherin is generally only available between October and April. It's released onto the market at different stages of ageing - the darker the rind, the older, more stinky and flavoursome it should be. With a very young cheese, as mine was, the rind will still be whiteish and can be eaten but the rind on older cheeses can be quite tough and somewhat bitter so is best discarded. Vacherin is usually sold wrapped in plastic with the lid underneath the box, so you can see the colour of the rind.
Expect to pay around £10 for a small cheese - at that price it really is an indulgence. If you're on a day trip to France, though, you can usually find them for around £6 so it's worth bringing back a couple if you don't mind it stinking your luggage out.
I usually have a green salad on the side, not just to cut through the carbs but to get some greens in me. Go easy on the dressing so it doesn't overpower the cheese. If you're very health conscious you could dip crudites into the Vacherin, but that would rather defeat the object of the exercise.
No wine? Use another white alcohol - fino sherry, kirsch and vermouth are all good substitutes. And for my next time, I plan to experiment with gin...
Other soft cheeses can also be baked this way. Out of season, Epoisses, Stinking Bishop and Camembert all do well in the oven. If your Camembert comes in a cardboard box, take it out, put the cheese in a small ovenproof dish and cover tightly with foil.
Pong and Just Cheese both import artisan French cheeses at reasonable prices.